The e-mail message turned in another student for using profanity on her personal Web page, which linked to Trinity’s Web site. Nothing scandalous, but Dr. McGuire was more troubled, she said, that “trinity gurl” had snitched in secrecy.
So Dr. McGuire reached for a particularly apt solution in the age of the blogosphere: She censured the eager informant on her own blog, comparing the e-mailer to Big Brother and asking, “Who is ‘trinity gurl’ and why is she sending me this kind of information about something a student is posting online?”
While some colleges and their presidents have seen their reputations shredded on student blogs, and others have tried to limit what students and faculty members may say online, about a dozen or so presidents, like Dr. McGuire, are vaulting the digital and generational divide and starting their own blogs.
Veterans of campus public relations disasters warn that presidents blog at their peril; “an insane thing to do” is how Raymond Cotton, a lawyer who advises universities and their presidents in contract negotiations, describes it. But these presidents say blogs make their campuses seem cool and open a direct line, more or less, to students, alumni and the public.
“When I first started learning about blogs, I said, ‘Well, here I like to discourse on issues of the day, connect with the campus community,’ ” recalled Dr. McGuire, who said she wrote all her own entries. “Here’s a way I can talk a couple of times a week to everybody.”
And so she does: about Representative Nancy Pelosi, class of 1962, who will be the first female speaker of the House; about election results; about breaking ground for a memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and about lesbian alumnae and the Roman Catholic Church, sensitive ground for a Catholic undergraduate college serving mostly minority and low-income women.
Dr. McGuire wrote that the church’s rejection of same-sex unions did not mean that the “alma mater must shun her own daughters.” She added, “All alumnae are welcome at Trinity, always.”
At Towson University, outside Baltimore, the president, Robert L. Caret, who writes Bob’s Blog, appears online in sunglasses, casually unshaven and smiling gamely alongside the Towson Tiger mascot. Dr. Caret’s blog, though, plays it safe, mostly praising particular programs like summer courses or studying abroad, or urging students to join clubs and to help spruce up the campus.
But that does not mean the students play it safe.
Dr. Caret’s post titled “Education vs. Training” prompted a graduate student to complain about what he called a language barrier with foreign-born teachers. To illustrate his point, the student reprinted a note in broken English from one of his professors, which ended: “Of course, some class(es) may not satisfy your thirsty in terms of your learning expectation. But even those classes will be a small stone to build your career.”
The student asked Dr. Caret, “Can students learning a new subject be expected to comprehend the new topic when they are too busy trying to comprehend what was just said?”
Though Dr. Caret’s site posted the letter, he did not answer the question on his blog. In an e-mail message, he said he forwarded the complaint to the provost.
It is this kind of exchange that prompts Mr. Cotton, the lawyer, to urge caution. If trustees are dissatisfied with a president, Mr. Cotton said, blogs offer a president’s adversaries ready ammunition. A casual comment taken out of context, a longstanding problem not addressed, or a politically controversial position can all torpedo a president, he said.
“In this day and age of political correctness,” Mr. Cotton said, “it exposes the president to all kinds of unfair and unwarranted criticism.”
So perhaps it is no wonder that Dr. Caret is not live on the keyboard. An assistant posts the thoughts that Dr. Caret dictates, while an employee in the marketing department screens responses and posts them.
“When you’re fund-raising, a big part of that is creating an atmosphere of excitement, of a campus that’s going places,” Dr. Caret said. The blog, he said, “adds to that.”
Some presidents try to connect on a lighter, more personal note. After forgetting his cellphone on the roof of his car and driving off, Dick Celeste, the president of Colorado College, blogged about “that set of brain cells that tells me exactly what is going to happen when I do something. But then is incapable of helping me avert that very consequence.”
Lou Anna K. Simon, president of Michigan State University, uses her blog for serious topics. For example, she recommitted the university to diversity, despite a rejection of affirmative action by voters in Michigan this month.
Dr. Simon also condemned a conservative group’s plan to stage “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day” on campus. The event would have involved finding a student to play the role of an illegal immigrant and turning the “immigrant” in. Dr. Simon derided the game as “a way to mock and demean, not to educate; a way to exclude, not include, voices.”
That posting won her praise from the student government and others, said Lindsey Poisson, a reporter for the campus newspaper. Though the president’s choice of subjects did not always resonate with students, in this instance, students wanted to know where the president stood, Ms. Poisson said.
“Her blogging is one of the things that changed the image of the president on campus,” she said. “A significant part of everything she’s trying to do to is to reach out to students.”
But the group that planned the event, Young Americans for Freedom, said that the blog inhibited free speech, and that no professor or administrator should express an opinion publicly about anything.
“We’re here to be educated, to get our degrees,” said Kyle Bristow, chairman of the group, which dropped its plans in favor of a forum on immigration later this semester. “They’re here to provide an atmosphere where we can be educated. We should be able to think for ourselves and not have people like Lou Anna Simon thinking for us.”
At Trinity, Dr. McGuire took a chance in exposing “trinity gurl” on her blog. Instead of opening communication with students, she risked shutting it down by rebuking the informant publicly. But anonymous accusations ran against the university’s honor code, a point, she said, that she could not ignore. Eventually, “trinity gurl” identified herself to Dr. McGuire as a student.
Leah Martin, president of the student government at Trinity, said the column fed into an ongoing debate over Web pages, free speech and the honor code, adding the president’s voice to the mix. “People wanted to know what she thought,” Ms. Martin said.
Bob Johnson, a consultant to many universities on marketing, said he was mystified that university officials had not generally embraced blogs. Mr. Johnson said student blogs, for example, could be a “hugely effective” recruitment tool, even if they carried the implicit promise — or threat — of uncensored truth, however unflattering.
Mr. Johnson encourages presidents to be bold.
“Just because you can’t beat them,” he said, “doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it yourself.”